When the House of Representatives draws up articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump, the list might not include one of his most dangerous abuses of power: the president’s promotion of fraudulent conspiracy theories giving White House credence to crackpot claims once confined to fringe websites.
In the impeachment case, the spotlight has focused on Trump’s arm-twisting of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden before receiving desperately needed U.S. military aid. But less attention has been paid to Trump’s other demand: that Zelensky pursue the fake claim that Ukraine, not Russia, hacked the 2016 election.
That conspiracy theory has been debunked, repeatedly, including by all U.S. intelligence agencies. “This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves,” said former top national security official Fiona Hill, at impeachment hearings.
But Trump won’t let it go. His frequent embrace of convoluted conspiracy theories means White House policy can be based on bizarre fairy tales – and be wide open to penetration by Russian and other intelligence agencies.
It doesn’t get much more dangerous than that.
I have reported for decades from troubled countries such as Pakistan and Egypt, where publics rely on conspiracy theories to make sense of the world because they have no trusted sources of information.
Often those theories are fed by their intelligence services, or, in the internet age, they just appear and go viral. For example, the Pakistani conspiracy theory that polio vaccines are a Western plot to sterilize Muslims, which has led to the murder of health workers and a resurgence of that disease.
Of course, conspiratorial thinking is hardly unknown in America (see Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics), but it has mostly been relegated to the margins.
I never thought such theories would go mainstream in the United States.
We know that Trump rose to political prominence by promoting the fake birther conspiracy theory – that Barack Obama was born outside the USA. We also know the president has promoted endless numbers of other such ugly, baseless theories, tweeting them to the world as he gleans them from radical-right websites or Fox News.
In the matter of Ukraine, Trump has latched on to various strands of fake facts spewed from the internet’s darkest reaches and picked up by extremist media outlets. The theory claims that CrowdStrike, the California cybersecurity company that investigated the Russian government hack of Democratic emails, somehow secreted away a DNC server to Ukraine.
“The server, they say Ukraine has it,” Trump told Zelensky in his famous July phone call, citing CrowdStrike and asking the Ukrainian leader to “find out what happened.”
No matter that Trump was warned over and over by his own staff that this theory was “completely debunked,” according to Thomas Bossert, the president’s first homeland security adviser.
No, CrowdStrike was not owned by a “rich Ukrainian," as Trump told Zelensky. Yes all servers are accounted for, no mythical single server gone absent. “The DNC server and that conspiracy theory has to go,” Bossert said, weeks ago.
And, to repeat, the U.S. intelligence community, along with bipartisan reports from both House and Senate Intelligence Committees all confirm that Russia did the hacking. Among the reams of documentation, a 29-page criminal indictment against 12 Russian conspirators for hacking the 2016 election that details one chapter of Russian meddling.
Moreover, as Hill stated so clearly, the blame-Ukraine narrative is promoted by Russian intelligence (and very possibly planted by it in the fevered world of far-right social media). You need only to read Vladimir Putin’s response to the Ukraine investigation to understand who benefits from Trump’s farce. “Thank God no one is accusing us anymore of interfering in the U.S. election,” said the Russian president. “Now they’re accusing Ukraine. Well, they should figure it out among themselves.”
And yet, Trump shamelessly and mindlessly pursues this mirage, dispatching his consigliere Rudy Giuliani abroad yet again to pursue debunked Ukrainian conspiracy tales.
Equally disturbing, GOP legislators, who must know this farce is groundless, support the White House. To take only one case, Sen. John Kennedy (R., La.), an Oxford-educated lawyer, actually said on Fox News in late November that the perpetrator of the 2016 hack “could be Ukraine.” Perhaps unable to look in his mirror while shaving, he quickly rescinded that claim, only to repeat it days later.
And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, no doubt considering his hopes for a future senatorial seat, has suggested the debunked Ukraine conspiracy theory was worth looking into.
In other words, to prevent being primaried, the GOP political establishment supports Trump’s conspiracy theories run wild.
What makes this so scary is that these politicians don’t see the risk of mainstreaming conspiracy delusions as the basis for White House policy.
This is the United States, not Pakistan or Egypt. We are still the world’s most powerful nation. Having a conspiracy theorist in the White House who blurs the distinction between fiction and fact is a threat to our country, and a boon to our enemies. Whether or not it amounts to an impeachable offense.